Andrew McNaughtan video archive: CHART work

25 July 2013

CHART’s Cecily Gilbert and John Waddingham recently spent two weeks in residence at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra examining the video collection of prominent 1990s Timor activist Dr Andrew McNaughtan (1954-2003).

Andrew McNaughtan with Jude Conway and FALINTIL commander, Taur Matan Ruak

East Timor 1999: Andrew McNaughtan with Jude Conway, FALINTIL commander Taur Matan Ruak, and camera. Credit: Jude Conway

The Andrew McNaughtan audiovisual collection holds some important historical footage from occupied East Timor in the 1990s. The collection was deposited at Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in 2006, three years after Andrew’s sudden and premature death in December 2003.

Andrew McNaughtan visited Timor several times from 1994, always carrying a video camera. He travelled around the territory, recording countryside and village scenes and interviewing anyone who was prepared to speak to camera about life and conditions under Indonesian military occupation.

The collection is an important part of the surviving archival record of this significant Australian activist and the period he observed in East Timor.

Collection content
Andrew McNaughtan’s video for the 1994-1998 period contains rare material, some of which is probably unique. Raw footage of particular note for this period includes:

  • Extensive coverage of the 1998 university ‘Student Dialogues’ process
  • Smuggled Indonesian recordings of post-demonstration detentions and interrogations
  • Interviews with Church personnel, including priests, nuns and Monsignor Belo
  • Interviews with ordinary Timorese on military occupation, human rights violations, food production and shortages
  • Some marvellous scenes of countryside, jubilant pre-independence crowds, religious ceremonies and devotions

McNaughtan’s extensive record of the historic ‘Student Dialogues’ throughout East Timor in the second half of 1998 is especially interesting. He travelled with the student convoys from Dili to various centres across the territory, recording the public rallies and the obstructions they experienced from civilian and military officials.

Teamwork: NFSA’s Tim Cowie (left) and Tenille Hands (third from left) with John Waddingham and Cecily Gilbert.

CHART work
CHART’s two weeks at NFSA was devoted to viewing the McNaughtan material and recording data about the collection content for NFSA’s online catalogue.

The project provided a number of challenges – not least of which was trying to determine the date and location of some 100 different recordings. CHART’s final data set on the collection is far from perfect. Much work remains to be done to more accurately identify people, places, events and spoken content.

Our data on the collection will be available through this website when it becomes available on the NFSA catalogue in coming weeks.

Access to collection
The collection will be available for viewing at NFSA after it is catalogued.

CHART also nominated some sixty tapes for special digitisation by NFSA which will enable that footage to be viewed through NFSA offices or agencies in most Australian capitals.

NFSA has a longer term plan to make footage like this accessible online through its own website. NFSA also has adopted in recent years an in-principle commitment to ensuring key Timor archival materials are eventually accessible to East Timorese through Timor-Leste’s own archival institutions.

Further information on Andrew McNaughtan:
1. Document archives: CHART work and list.
2. Jude Conway’s photographic testimonial (on Clinton Fernandes website)
3. Collected reflections by friends and colleagues.


Bill Morrison Papers: Timor fragments

5 July 2013

CHART recently visited the National Library of Australia to examine some Timor fragments in the papers of former Australian diplomat and parliamentarian, the late Bill Morrison.

We present here a brief summary of the collection’s Timor-related contents and report our discovery of a minor archival treasure.

Bill Morrison. 1983

Bill Morrison. 1983 [Source: The Bulletin]

Bill Morrison (1928-2013) was a career diplomat-turned-politician who was a minister in the Whitlam Labor Government, 1972-75. He lost his seat in 1975 but returned to parliament in 1980 until becoming Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, 1985-89.

While the Timor issue would have crossed his desk as Defence Minister in late 1975, his most prominent public connection to Timor was as leader of the controversial Australian parliamentary delegation visit to Indonesia in July-August 1983

Morrison collection
The National Library of Australia (NLA) holds Bill Morrison’s personal papers accumulated in his terms in public life (1969-1989). In many ways, the papers are typical of a number of other politicians’ archives in Australian public repositories. They contain a mixture of subject files, correspondence and files on specific parliamentary activities such as serving on various parliamentary committees. Morrison was a member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and his papers also include ALP internal organisational materials.

The National Library’s general description of the Morrison collection can be found here.

For a more detailed guide to the content of the collection, see the NLA’s online finding aid.

Access restrictions
The Morrison papers originally carried an undated 30-year restriction on access. Following CHART enquiries, the NLA manuscripts division has determined that some of the papers are available for immediate public access; others remain  restricted.

CHART learned in discussion with the NLA’s manuscripts curator that access to papers like Bill Morrison’s is subject to the 1983 Archives Act and the 1993 Parliamentary Services Act. In short this means, for example, that Morrison’s nearly-40-year-old Defence Minister files from 1975 still need to be examined by National Archives for possible exempt materials* before being cleared for access.

Similarly, the full extent of Mr Morrison’s papers on his time as Indonesian Ambassador will not be accessible until 2015; even then, the papers will likely be subject to prior examination by National Archives.

Bill Morrison's papers on the 1983 Parliamentary Delegation visit to Indonesia & East Timor.

Bill Morrison’s papers on the 1983 Parliamentary Delegation visit to Indonesia & East Timor.

Timor Content
CHART’s examination of a small selection of boxes from the Morrison papers revealed the collection to contain Timor materials of unquestionable research interest.

1. Labor Party Timor policy development
The collection contains materials offering insight into ALP policy development, especially on Timor. Of particular value are internal papers leading up the the landmark 1984 ALP national conference which watered down the party’s Timor previous position (see our earlier article on this issue).

2. Parliamentary Delegation
The three boxes of material on the 1983 Parliamentary Delegation, while partly restricted, offer particular insight into the original drafting of the delegation’s report. From the examined files, it seems that Morrison himself wrote in long-hand, the very first draft of key sections of the report. The boxes also contain a good collection of Indonesian print media coverage of the overall delegation visit and a comprehensive file on the so-called ‘chance meeting with Fretilin’ (see below), including the public controversy which followed.

Letter to Delegation, 1983

Letter to Delegation, 1983**

Buried treasure
The unscripted interception of a delegation vehicle by members of the Fretilin-led resistance became a public sensation; even moreso when it was alleged after the delegation’s departure that the Fretilin member’s words to Bill Morrison were mistranslated.

At the interception, the resistance member (Cancio de Sousa Gama) handed Morrison a letter from Fretilin – the text of which was translated and incorporated into the Delegation’s formal report.

CHART was greatly surprised to find the original letter in Bill Morrison’s personal papers at the National Library. Click image at right to see the front of the four-page original text.

CHART will explore the broader 1983 Parliamentary Delegation saga in more detail in coming weeks.


The Morrison collection at the National Library of Australia contains valuable additions to the overall archival record about East Timor, 1974-99. In addition to the non-Morrison primary source materials therein, it also offers some insight into Mr Morrison’s views and work on the East Timor issue which ran strongly against the case for East Timorese self-determination.


*Exempt materials: Materials which still contain sensitive information; see details here. In the case of East Timor, most government-sourced materials are automatically regarded as sensitive and a decision on access often takes many months.

** Fretilin Letter to Delegation, 26 July 1983, Papers of Bill Morrison, National Library of Australia, MS 4957 / Addition 1 November 1984 / Box 65.
[Letter reproduced here by kind permission of Pictures and Manuscripts, National Library of Australia]

Parliamentary Inquiry: CHART submission

15 May 2013

The Australian Parliament has begun a broad-ranging inquiry into Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste. We present here a summary and full text of CHART’s submission to the inquiry.

CHART calls for a critical examination of current restrictions on access to Australian government archives about East Timor and calls for Australian support for emerging archival institutions in Timor-Leste.

On May 21, the Australian parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade will commence public hearings on Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste. The inquiry will examine government and non-government relationships and has attracted over seventy submissions – largely from Australian NGOs and individuals.

This is the third Australian parliamentary inquiry specifically on Timor in the current era, following Senate Committee inquiries in 1982-83 and 1999-2000. Historically these reports have had little obvious influence on the direction of government policy (the 1983 report was virtually ignored by the then Hawke Labor Government). However, such inquiries can provide a comprehensive insight into the thinking and actions of key players and are an important compendium of current information. The reports and the large volume of submissions and evidential transcripts also serve as a rich archival record for future generations.

CHART Submission
Our submission to the inquiry is based on an a view that the current many-faceted relationship between Australia and Timor-Leste arises directly out of the traumatic years of the Indonesian military occupation, 1975-1999. For this reason, Australians and East Timorese have a shared and abiding interest in access to historical archives about this period.

The Chart submission makes a series of recomendations in two areas: The right to the truth through access to archives, and the development of relationships between Australian and emerging East Timorese archival institutions.

Access to Australian archives on Timor
Drawing attention to the growing international interest in ‘the right to truth’, CHART makes a number of recommendations on access, including:

  • Timor records in the custody of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) be subject to a special program to expedite their release for public access
  • Processes for examining records for release be revised to speed up public access
  • The Department of Foreign Affairs’ restrictions on access be critically examined to establish whether they are over-cautious or unnecessarily restrictive.

Timor-Australia Archival relationships
Australia, as comparatively rich neighbour, is better placed than any other to cooperate with Timor-Leste in the development of sustainable archival institutions in Timor. While arguing against unsustainable, quick-fix, high technology assistance, the CHART submission recommends:

  • Exploratory relationship-building between National Archives of Australia and Timor-Leste’s Arquivo Nacional
  • Australian government support for Australian institutions with Timor archival holdings and programs
  • Australian archival institutions include in their Timor relationship programs, coordination with related Timor-engaged Australian non-government cultural initiatives
  • Programs to copy Australian-held Timor archival materials for eventual access in Timor-Leste.

CHART believes all these practical recommendations can be achieved over time and done in ways which are of relatively low cost.

Further information:
Full text of CHART submission
Links to all Inquiry submissions

[Note: More links to be added as Inquiry proceeds]

Australia’s new Labor government, March 1983

5 March 2013

The election on 5 March 1983 of a new Labor government under the populist prime minister Bob Hawke held the possibility of a change in Canberra’s direction on Timor. The Australian Labor Party came into the 1983 election with a formal Timor position strongly supporting East Timorese self-determination.

We present here some source materials which illuminate development of Labor’s Timor policy, the new government’s approach to the policy and community reaction to early signs that the government was broadly continuing the pro-integration approach of  the Whitlam and Fraser governments.

Bob Hawke, election tally room, 5 March 1983. [Source: ABC]

Bob Hawke, election tally room, 5 March 1983. [Source: ABC]

In 1977 the Australian Labor Party (ALP) rejected former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s approach on Timor by adopting a strong resolution opposing the Indonesian annexation and supporting self-determination. In 1979, however, this policy was significantly reduced in scope (see both texts here). A renewal of Australian activism after the political, military and humanitarian disasters inside Timor in 1978-79 included a focus on re-invigorating ALP policy.

Renewing Labor Party policy 1981-82
In early 1981, a few Australia East Timor Association (AETA) activists* began working with members of the Victorian branch of the ALP on an early draft policy proposal. The final product described principles and actions on a range of matters like self-determination, United Nations, refugees, military aid and the sea-bed boundary.

ALP rank-and-file member support for a pro-Timor policy was particularly strong in the state of Victoria. In June 1981, leading figures on the left such as Jean McLean were instrumental in the Victorian branch adopting a policy based on the AETA proposal. The Victorian branch then led the way in establishing  a national ALP Timor draft policy. Just prior to the ALP national conference which was to vote on the draft policy in July 1982, activists began to worry about the length of the proposal and suggested a less detailed but still principled alternative.

In the end, though, the ALP adopted a detailed conference resolution which included, word for word, seven of the eight principal policy statements originally proposed by AETA in 1981. The missing item was the sea-bed boundary issue. Many of the specific government actions originally proposed by AETA were not included, except the less controversial ones on information and family reunions.

Shoring-up the policy
In Victoria ALP member (and AETA chairperson) George Preston headed an  ‘East Timor Support Group’ within the party to build  support for the new policy. Established in late 1982, the group secured the signatures of four key Labor parliamentarians on a letter sent to all branches seeking their active support for the new policy. One of the signatories was Gareth Evans, later Australian Foreign Minister (1988-96); his letter agreeing to add his signature showed solid support for the policy but with some reservations.

Other encouraging signs for Timor supporters came when almost the entire membership of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party signed a policy-supporting statement which long-time Timor activist Senator Gordon McIntosh presented to a hearing on the UN Decolonisation Committee in November 1982. Just a few days before the 1983 election, Labor foreign minister-in-waiting, Bill Hayden, gave further signs of a new Labor government’s commitment to its policy.

Labor in Government: Alarming signs
There was considerable media interest before and after the March 5 election in how the Hawke government would handle the policy (see sample coverage here). The early signs after the election were, however, alarming for the supporters of the new policy with the new prime minister failing to affirm it in other than the vaguest terms.

Cabinet decision March 1983

Only in 2012 was the Hawke Cabinet’s first Timor policy decision made public**. The 29 March 1983 Cabinet decision showed that the government had adopted a formula which broadly followed the script recommended by the Foreign Affairs Department to successive Australian governments since 1975. The essence of the formula was that while an internationally supervised act of self-determination had not taken place, any ‘support’ for the East Timorese must go through the Indonesian government (by inference: no actions supporting self-determination).

This formula was clearly reflected in Bill Hayden’s first overseas visit to Jakarta  in early April where he played down support for East Timorese self-determination and focussed on relatively minor Timor matters like aid and family reunion.

Activist disquiet and action
It didn’t take long for Timor supporters to realise they had work to do if the policy was to survive. Within two days of the election, the ALP East Timor Support Group directed a letter of concern to Labor parliamentarians and continued to be active in the months following.

Click to viewOn March 9 a nationally-distributed letter sought participants for a March 19 strategy meeting in Melbourne. Interstate solidarity groups like the Campaign for Independent East Timor (CIET) in Sydney and Adelaide weren’t able to attend but indicated their activities and intentions.  AETA and others wrote to Bill Hayden seeking a meeting with him; AETA distributed a pamphlet which showed what it thought needed doing.

PM Hawke casts the die
Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s visit to Jakarta in early June 1983 left no-one in any doubt that the government was indeed abandoning its party policy. AETA’s subsequent pamphlet spelled out the detail.

The next element in the Hawke government’s strategy to overturn the the policy came in the form of an Australian parliamentary delegation to Indonesia in July 1983 – but that is another story.


* Initial working group members were George Preston, Pat Walsh, John Waddingham and Rod Harris.

** See full Cabinet decision and briefing notes through the National Archives of Australia RecordSearch. Worth an article in its own right.

Documents reproduced here come from the archives of the ACFOA Human Rights Office and Timor Information Service – both in CHART custody in Melbourne.

Falintil: Building the archival record

21 August 2012

August 20 is celebrated annually in Timor-Leste as the foundation day of Falintil*, the East Timorese resistance army. Falintil was founded in 1975, initially as a military wing of Fretilin, to fight in the brief civil war and then the many years of resistance to Indonesian military occupation which followed.

Timor Archives marks this event with a mention of two archival fragments on Falintil and some discussion on securing the archival record for future generations.

Snapshot of Tempo Semanal’s Falintil Album on Facebook.

To mark Falintil Day 2012, the East Timorese media organisation Tempo Semanal published almost 900 resistance-related images on its Facebook fan page. The photographs appear to range in time from 1975 to the early post-1999 referendum period. They include many portraits of Falintil leaders and troops and life in resistance areas.

Many of these historically important images are familiar; seen in private and public collections in Timor and internationally. Many of the images can also be seen in an online collection of East Timor’s Resistance Archive and Museum (AMRT). A 1975 set of images of Indonesian military forces in the album were featured last year on this website (see: Invasion 1975 – Photographs).

Long term archival questions
Tempo Semanal’s album is an eye-catching celebration and reminder of Falintil’s history. However, in common with similar collections of historical materials posted on Facebook and elsewhere, it is unlikely to serve as a reliable repository of archival information for future generations.

The problem with such collections is that they provide little or no information about image origins such as photographer, place, date and circumstance. Facebook users are invited or urged to add such information to the images in the online album. This is a marvellous opportunity to increase knowledge of the images, but who will take responsibility for making sure this data is kept for, and will be accessible to, future generations after Facebook disappears?

Timorese institutional solution?
Such information is most likely to be preserved by an archival institution equipped and dedicated to such tasks. Currently in Timor-Leste the AMRT leads the way in preserving and documenting archival records of the resistance, but it also has significant limitations. The Archive does not yet appear to have a regular system for seeking and recording additional information or data corrections from collection users.

What is needed is a system which not only displays archival collections but invites and allows knowledgeable users to submit missing information about individual items. Such a system needs institutional management and supervision and would be suited to organisations like the AMRT or the envisaged Institute of Memory or National Library.


Alarico Fernandes on early Falintil
We also present here a unique fragment of Falintil-related history – an audio recording of Alarico Fernandes describing some of the events in Aileu in August 1975 which were part of the formation of Falintil at that time. To listen, Click ‘play’ arrow below.

Attending a Timor strategy conference with Jose Ramos-Horta in Melbourne on 22-23 November 1975, Alarico gave a short account of the civil war and post-civil war Fretilin organisation. At the time, he was Secretary for Internal Affairs and Security in the post-civil war Fretilin administration. While the audio fragment does not decisively add new data to the known historical record of Falintil’s formation, its power lies in hearing the voice of a significant person in Fretilin’s and Falintil’s 1975-78 history.

Capturing Falintil history
The Alarico Fernandes fragment is one of an unknown number of related audio items on resistance history. Some date from 1975, others are recorded interviews with veterans during the post 1999 independence years. Many of these recordings are yet to find their way into institutional repositories for long-term preservation and access.

Alarico Fernandes is still alive but reportedly fragile in body and spirit. He, in common with many of the surviving original Timorese resistance generation, will not be with us forever. It is a matter of considerable urgency that the knowledge of the resistance generation is captured as fully as possible while it remains possible.

Ultimately this is a task for enthusiastic East Timorese and their emerging professional archival institutions.



* Falintil is the acronym for Forças Armadas da Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste (Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor).

Alarico Fernandes recording made by Timor Information Service, Melbourne, November 1975. Original in TIS archives.

Hunting for Timor information: Jakarta 1982

14 June 2012

An Australian Senate Inquiry into conditions in East Timor was established in 1981 following a concerted public campaign by non-government organisations and solidarity groups. The East Timor Sub-committee of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) played a key role in the campaign.

Once the Inquiry was established, ACFOA was then concerned to ensure that the most up-to-date information from inside East Timor was put before it. With Indonesian military restrictions making a visit to Timor impossible, a number of aid agencies sent a private two-person mission to Indonesia to seek current data from East Timorese in Jakarta.

We summarise here the information found during this 1982 ‘hunting & gathering’ mission to Indonesia.

Documents and notebook of interviews collected in Jakarta, 1982.

In March 1982, John Waddingham and Chris Dureau SJ visited Jakarta for two weeks to seek information from Timorese, Indonesian and foreign sources on current conditions in East Timor.

Their arrival in Jakarta coincided with the public revelation of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s visit to Timor on March 1-4. Whitlam’s visit, organised by Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), was arguably also designed and timed with the Senate Inquiry in mind.

Timorese and other sources in Jakarta
There was a substantial number of East Timorese in Jakarta in 1982. A small stream of Timorese working with the Indonesian administration travelled between Dili and the capital. There was an increasing number of Timorese students in Jakarta, along with a growing number of Timorese refugees from Dili stuck in Jakarta while trying to get out of Indonesia (2).

A few Indonesian non-government organisations such as Lembaga Bantuan Hukum (LBH – Legal Aid Institute), Christian churches with Timor links and Indonesian or foreign journalists were also potential sources of information.

Given the high degree of political sensitivity of the East Timor issue in Jakarta and a strong climate of fear amongst the Timorese in particular, most meetings with potential sources were  in-confidence and on condition that they were not publicly identified.

No shortage of information
A significant body of data was collected – both in document form and through interviews with individuals with first-hand knowledge of events and conditions in Timor over the previous twelve months.

In addition to strong confirmation of the general picture of East Timorese difficulties under Indonesia occupation, the information gathered was particularly notable in these ways:
* Evidence of the growing voice of the East Timorese Catholic Church against human rights abuses.
* More data on the 1981 Indonesian ‘fence of legs’ military operation.
* Information fragments on the emergence of Xanana Gusmao as a new leader of the armed resistance.

We provide access here to some key elements of materials gathered in March 1982

Timor Dossier
A compilation of collected material entitled East Timor Dossier March 1982 (large file; ~6Mb) was the main output of the mission. It contains rough English translations of Indonesian and Portuguese-language documents, notes of interviews with individuals, a brief guide to the content and source of the documents and a subject index to the interview material.

The Dossier was submitted to the Senate Inquiry and privately circulated to key international Timorese and non-Timorese advocates.

Interrogation materials
Other material collected included a set of transcripts of Indonesian interrogations of East Timorese accused of planning an uprising in Liquica in early 1981. To protect the source of the documents and the accused East Timorese, these items were excluded from the Dossier compilation. A small sample of the documents and rough translations is provided here.

Senate Inquiry transcript
Waddingham and Dureau gave verbal testimony on their findings to the Senate Inquiry. The evidence was given in-camera to protect Timorese sources in Jakarta. The passage of time now makes it possible to put the testimony into the public arena. Compared to the Dossier, it contains very little information of value – except perhaps to provide an insight into the efforts of some Senators to question the significance or value of the data collected.

Significance of the event
Information flowing from Jakarta-based sources prior to 1982 was intermittent, at best. The 1982 visit established that much information on developments and conditions in East Timor was available in Jakarta – albeit at some considerable personal risk to informants. Similar information-seeking visits to Jakarta in following years yielded valuable documentary insights into closed East Timor.

Thirty years later, the information in the material collected in 1982 seems fragmentary and at times contradictory. It was all those things – but such is the nature of raw data gathered in difficult circumstances. This data contributed greatly to building a picture of conditions in East Timor in 1981-82. This material also provides an insight into the limits of the data available to external advocates for East Timorese self-determination in the early 1980s.


(1) Senate Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defence Inquiry into ‘The Human Rights and Conditions of the People of East Timor’.
(2)Many of the refugees were East Timorese on an Australian-Indonesia-agreed list for family reunion in Australia but who were unable to pay unofficial bureaucratic bribes to obtain exit visas.

The original documents and translations presented here are held in the archival collections of Timor Information Service and the ACFOA Human Rights Office. Both collections are in CHART’s custody.

Calamity unfolding: 1978

19 April 2012

The Australian Government is restricting access to official records which may reveal the extent of its knowledge of, and what it did about, the disastrous humanitarian situation emerging in occupied East Timor in 1978 (1). We present here a small sample of media reportage which shows the minimum of what was known by the Australian government and society at that time.

Remexio, September 1978. East Timorese internal ‘refugees’ under Indonesian control.

The Fretilin-led armed resistance through Radio Maubere broadcasts in 1977-78 often reported the poor condition of East Timorese being held in Indonesian-run ‘concentration camps’. Rare letters from East Timorese church sources and individuals in Dili also indicated rising death rates inside and outside Indonesian-controlled areas of the territory. (2)

Most of these reports were dismissed by mainstream media and governments alike as ‘unconfirmed’. By September 1978 it was no longer possible to dismiss claims of an emerging humanitarian calamity in East Timor.

Ambassadors & journalists see for themselves
In what was a very rare visit by outsiders to Indonesia-occupied East Timor, Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Tom Critchley travelled to the territory on 6-7 September 1978. He was with a party of 10 other-country representatives and a number of foreign journalists. The entourage was accompanied by the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja.

The group visited Dili, Baucau, Maliana and Remexio. In Remexio, in the mountains behind Dili, the journalists and ambassadors were confronted with a sample of the condition of so-called ‘refugees from conflict’ who were now under Indonesian control.

What they saw
Journalists’ reports of what they saw in Remexio, and what they were told – including the reactions of the ambassadors themselves – left no doubt about the humanitarian situation. These reports included the following:
–  visitors were ‘shocked’ by the condition of the people they saw in Remexio
–  the children in Remexio reminded an (un-named) ambassadorof famine in Africa
–  125,000 ‘refugees’ have come into Indonesian control
–  humanitarian aid was needed fast to prevent hundreds more dying
–  outside Dili – thousands are starving and barely anyone smiles
–  in Remexio – many are naked and most have the piercing gaze, emaciated limbs and distended bellies of advanced malnutrition
–  conditions in other ‘transit camps’ such as Suai reportedly ‘much worse’
–  East Timor described as being ‘in a state of deep, collective trauma’.

Click links immediately below to read a sample of media reportage from the ambassadors’ visit.
The Herald (Melbourne) 11 September 1978
The Herald (Melbourne) 12 September 1978
Far Eastern Economic Review 29 September 1978

Australian commentary
Formal editorial comment by Australian media on these reports was unambiguous.

The national daily, The Australian (12 September 1978), said “Australia has a clear and urgent task to perform: to give immediate aid..quickly, with no strings attached..”. It responded to an Australian government statement of being ‘sympathetic’ to Indonesian requests for aid with a clear challenge: “Do we have to wait to be asked?”

Similar editorial comments were published in The Herald (Melb.), 11 September & 12 September 1978

Conservative foreign affairs and defence journalist, Douglas Wilkie, was very direct in concluding what was happening to the East Timorese and offered a scathing assessment of immediate Australian government responses to humanitarian need. “Tens of thousands of Timorese have been starved into submission by the Indonesians….The [Indonesian] generals must not be seen as begging for international aid to get them out of a horror situation of their own deliberate making. And Canberra, it seems, feels obliged to play along.” See The Sun (Melbourne) 13 September 1978.

A further reflection of Australian society’s knowledge and concern about the situation came in the form of a cross-party petition from 76 members of the national parliament. Addressed to the UN Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, the petition called on “all member nations to act to facilitate the admission of International Red Cross into East Timor.”  Canberra Times 3 October 1978.

This sample of material shows very clearly that the government, the parliamentarians and the mainstream media knew what conditions were prevailing in East Timor and that major humanitarian relief aid was required to alleviate the conditions and prevent an even worse catastrophe.

It is a matter of historical record that another full twelve months passed before the Indonesian Government allowed International Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services (USA) to begin emergency humanitarian aid programs in East Timor.

Access to official records
Responsibility for the exclusion of International Red Cross  from East Timor from December 1975 to September 1979 rests finally with particular Suharto Government military and civilian officials. It will be a matter for concerned Indonesian citizens to seek access to official records in order to more fully understand its government’s actions on this matter.

The public record of the September 1978 visit alone reveals undeniable Australian and other-government knowledge of an already desperate humanitarian situation in East Timor. What remains hidden, however, is an answer to the question: what diplomatic efforts did Australia (and other countries with this knowledge)  make to persuade Indonesia to lift its ban on international humanitarian assistance to the East Timorese?

The circumstantial evidence suggests the diplomacy was so quiet it was barely heard. In Australia’s case, public release of the relevant archival records will  help settle this important question.


(1) Thanks again to researcher and historian Clinton Fernandes for his work to obtain access to official Australian archival material being kept secret. See this media item on his most recent work. See also Pat Walsh’s commentary on the issue and a more recent (May 14) backgrounder by Clinton Fernandes. Earlier Fernandes work to obtain release of Australian materials can be found in this 2011 Timor Archives item.

(2) See, for example, Radio Maubere and other material from East Timor published in 1977-78 issues of the advocacy newsletters Timor Information Service and East Timor News.

The most detailed account of the conditions of East Timorese at this time, and the reasons, can be found in Chega!, the 2005 report of Timor-Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth & Reconciliation. See Chapter 7.3, Forced displacement and famine. Warning: Harrowing reading.

Newspaper clippings presented here are drawn from the archives of Timor Information Service, Melbourne, 1975-1984.